First let's settle an age-old debate because there are some who question whether the VW Golf GTI was indeed the first ever hot hatch.
Yep, they argue that the original Mini Cooper S kicked things or more than a decade earlier. Or that the 82bhp Simca 1100 Ti of 1973 was nippy enough to be classed as ‘hot’.
Well, as far as we're concerned the Golf was the first. No, it wasn't the first hatchback with sporting pretensions but it was the first with some proper get-up-and-go. More than 100bhp and acceleration that could genuinely entertain, in other words.
There. That's settled then. No more arguing.
Where it all started
Volkswagen took the wraps off the original (now known as the MK1) GTI at the 1975 Frankfurt motor show. It’s hard to believe but the hot hatchback, a supposedly 80s phenomenon, was actually born out of a backdrop of the Vietnam War and to the soundtrack of Dark Side of the Moon. Or probably Kraftwerk – the Golf is German after all.
The recipe wasn’t a complex one. A 1.6-litre fuel-injected petrol engine was tasked with providing the power and with 108bhp it did so admirably by the standards of the day. Remember, an entry-level Ford Fiesta back then packed just 45bhp.
Meanwhile, the suspension was stiffened to help the Golf handle the high speeds at which owners would inevitably come barrelling into corners. Visual enhancements included plastic wheelarch extensions, a red-ringed grille and gorgeous Pirelli P Slot alloys, so it didn't matter then that initially there were only two colours to choose from: Mars Red and Diamond Metallic Silver (pictured). Schwartz Black followed shortly after.
The GTI was originally sold exclusively in West Germany but in 1977 Volkswagen began importing left-hand drive versions to the UK. However, it wasn’t until 1979 that VW finally started building right-hand drive models.
Our 1981 Car of the Year
How did a car launched in the mid-70s win our 1981 Car of the Year award, you might be thinking. Well, the Golf GTI was treated to some comprehensive revisions over the years, which in 1980 included a close-ratio five-speed gearbox (the original car had only four gears) and a redesigned interior.
These gradual improvements meant the GTI comfortably fought off newer copycats, including the Ford Escort XR3. The fact the GTI was finally available in right-hand drive certainly helped, too. When we handed out the award 37 years ago we praised its "superbly smooth and refined engine and five-speed gearbox" and its "strong roadholding".
The real secret of the GTI's success, though, was that it provided "the best of both worlds by being tremendous fun as a driver's car yet [lost] none of the standard Golf's vice-free everyday behaviour."
But what’s it like today?
Like all classics, it’s only really fair to judge the GTI against its contemporaries. Jump into one after you’ve just driven a modern-day Honda Civic Type R and you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about.
Acceleration is brisk rather than electrifying. The MK1 GTI can officially hit 60mph in 9.0 seconds (this being VW’s very own treasured example we didn’t put that to the test) so it’s actually ever-so-slightly slower than the brand new Up GTI. But performance is roughly on par with the later MK1 Astra GTE that starred in another of our Rewind Wednesdays a few weeks ago.
Besides, it’s through corners the GTI was built to entertain and it makes the aforementioned Astra GTE feel somewhat soggy. Yes, there’s body lean and, yes, there’s some play in the steering that you have to push through before the front wheels begin to turn. But beyond that there’s genuine feel; the GTI feels positively lightweight (it’s no illusion) and wonderfully balanced through faster, sweeping switchbacks.
Yes, a Peugeot 205 GTI is more capable, more entertaining and has far better brakes, but that car didn’t come along until 1984 (the year the MK1 GTI went out of production) and frankly wouldn’t have existed at all had VW not provided a benchmark.
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